The Pentagon's decision to change the standards used to grade the success of Afghan police and soldiers, who are a centerpiece of U.S. strategy for smoothly exiting the war in Afghanistan, helped it present a positive picture of those forces' abilities, a U.S. government watchdog reported on Tuesday.
"These changes ... were responsible, in part, for its reported increase in April 2012 of the number of ANSF units rated at the highest level," the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said in a new report on Afghan national security forces, known as ANSF.
In a twice-annual report to Congress in April 2012, the Defense Department reported that Afghan police and soldiers "continued to make substantial progress," classifying 15 out of 219 army units as able to operate 'independently with assistance' from foreign advisors. Almost 40 out of 435 police units got the same rating.
The United States and its NATO allies have poured years of effort, and billions of dollars, into building up Afghanistan's police and army, which are taking over security as foreign forces prepare to withdraw most troops by the end of 2014.
While Afghan forces are far larger and better trained than they once were, they remain hobbled by problems including inadequate literacy and weak intelligence and logistics capability.
"Key definitions used in capability assessments ... have changed several times," the GAO said. Its report said the Pentagon's highest rating for Afghan forces had changed from 'independent' in early 2011 to 'independent with advisors' later that year.
In its April report, the Defense Department said that change occurred to better reflect the nature of foreign forces work in advising and partnering with units of different skill levels.
"The change to 'independent with advisors' also lowered the standard for unit personnel and equipment levels from 'not less than 85' to 'not less than 75' percent of authorized levels," the GAO said.
"Clarity regarding the criteria by which security forces are assessed is critical to congressional oversight of efforts to develop foreign security forces."
NATO nations may also struggle in securing sufficient funding for Afghan forces in the future, who are likely to face a fierce fight against the Taliban.
Over ten years after the Taliban government was toppled, the Afghan insurgency remains potent, even though militants were pushed out of some parts of southern Afghanistan following President Barack Obama's troop surge in 2009-2010.